Reading Scripture in the Context of a Neighborhood
Part 2 of 3
A few years ago, I was sitting with Anna Carter Florence when the question was posed concerning how we read Scripture. I do not remember fully what Florence said, except that she was wondering if the location of reading Scripture mattered. Does the location by which Scripture is read and proclaimed matter? Do we hear the words of Scripture differently depending upon the location? Hearing God speak on the mountain versus hearing God speak in the wilderness—does location matter?
Ever since I sat with Florence that afternoon and listened to her theologically wonder about the location of reading Scripture, I’ve been paying attention to the location in which the community of faith is hearing Scripture.
We live in a “sea of words,” writes Richard Lischer (1). There are many words competing for our attention. We could also describe our lives as busy, conflicting, and overburdened. And yet, we intentionally set time aside to gather as a community in worship so that we can hear the Word of God. We carve out time in our lives to respond to the One who calls us deeper into the life of God. In worship we hear the living Word of God proclaimed. In a “sea of words”, we intentionally tune our ears to hear God speak through the words of Scripture.
If we are story-formed people then we must always know the stories that are forming us. James Smith argues that whether we realize it or not, specific cultural liturgies are shaping us to live a specific culturally shaped story (2). If we are going to live out our calling as God’s people, we must always be learning and rehearsing the story of God, as told through Scripture. Thus, Bible studies on Wednesday evenings or Sunday mornings become our time to intentionally learn the story of God so that we can learn how to live out the story of God in our time and place.
In 2009, after intentionally listening to our neighbors, we discovered there were numerous children who were unable to have a Summer Camp experience. In partnership with the neighborhood, the church and neighborhood created a one-week Summer Camp program for the children. As Summer Camp continues to evolve, we are carving out time to tell stories of Scripture within the context of a Summer Camp.
The location where we are reading Scripture is always within a place of Christian community. We are on the mountain with God. On the mountain with God we are admonished, taught, inspired. On the mountain with God we are being built up into the body of Christ. We are not sent out in mission; we are being gathered. But what might happen if we find ourselves in a new location. Instead of being on the mountain we find ourselves in Babylon. Or, instead of being in Babylon we find ourselves in a neighborhood. Might a new location reveal new interpretations? Might a new location awaken our theological imaginations as to how we can be the people of God bearing witness to the nearness of God’s kingdom? Might a location such as a neighborhood be a place where we hear afresh the living Word of God?
Touring the Neighborhood (3)
Let me take you on a tour of our neighborhood. This tour will not stop at places of power or homes that resemble the American dream. This tour stops at places of brokenness, poverty, and murder.
There are no arches or gateways at the entrance of the neighborhood. Standing guard at the entrance is a coffee shop called Tim Horton’s. Leave Tim Horton’s and immediately there is a labyrinth of streets.
Through the labyrinth of streets we quickly find ourselves in front of 589 Longford Dr. The driveway is unpaved. A front door is hanging off the hinges. The side door being propped open leads to the basement. Not too long ago, in the basement, a 4 year old boy was beaten and later died from internal bleeding. As we stand at 589 Longford Dr. how might we hear the following words,
When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading. (4)
We leave 589 Longford Dr. and weave our way through side streets and arrive at 1010 Sheldon Ave. We stand on the sidewalk outside the house and we are told the story of a murdered 30-year old who was shot five times in the back. Standing in the exact location where a young man was tragically murdered, how might we hear the following words,
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (5)
We leave 1010 Sheldon and quickly arrive at 2 Maurice Ct. In this place we recall the story of a six month old baby drowning in the bathtub. In this context how might we hear the following words,
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” (6)
We leave 2 Maurice Ct and arrive at 15 Newberry. At 15 Newberry we meet a family who tells the story of how they can only afford one meal a day and sometimes, if bills are high, they can only afford to eat one meal every two days. In this context how might we hear the following words,
As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.
“Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children. (7)
Reading Scripture (Again)
If the location of reading Scripture matters, we must recognize the locations by which we are reading and hearing Scripture. Finding ways to hear the living Word of God spoken, within a variety of contexts, will awaken the theological and missional impulses of the church so that we can faithfully proclaim and witness to the in-breaking kingdom of God.
There will be times we need to be on the mountain with God and to hear the living Word of God. There will also be times we might find ourselves in Babylon, in exile, and in this context we hear the living of God in ways that are much different than being on the mountain with God. And there is the neighborhood—the neighborhood where the church is sent (Luke 10:1-12) to heal, proclaim the kingdom of God, and to receive the hospitality of the stranger. Might the neighborhood be a location where the living Word of God can be heard in fresh ways so that our missional impulses can be awakened?
- Richard Lischer, The End of Words (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 11.
- James Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).
- The streets are real but the addresses have been changed.
- John 6:16-21
- Matthew 5:3-10
- John 11:38-44
- Matthew 14:14-21
About the author: Nathan Pickard lives in Newmarket, Ontario with his wife Katie and two boys, Caleb and Eli. He loves to spend his time playing hockey with the kids and has a passion for the outdoors, especially hunting and fishing. Nathan has been serving as the minister for Newmarket Church of Christ for the past 13 years. He holds a Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degree from Abilene Christian University. Most recently, Nathan wrote a small book called Praying for the Neighborhood and also contributed a chapter to the book called Along the Way (edited by Ron Bruner and Dana Pemberton).